From Lowestoft...to Davy Jones’ locker
THE Royal Navy frigate HMS Lowestoft will be fondly remembered by many people in the town. But a quarter of a century ago this month, the ship made her final, sad voyage – to the bottom of the sea – after more than 25 years' sterling service to the Royal Navy. Turning Back the Clock reflects on her colourful history. SHE was once a shining star in the British fleet and a source of pride in the town that shares her name. But 25 years ago, after long and distinguished service to the nation, HMS Lowestoft was swallowed up by the sea, sunk off the Bahamas as part of target practice, by a torpedo fired from a submarine.
This HMS Lowestoft (F103), the third ship to bear the name in the past century, had been launched on June 23, 1960 as one of the new Rothesay Type 12-class first rate anti-submarine frigates. At 370 feet in length and weighing 2,800 tons, she had 25 years of active service ahead of her, with a range of missions and deployments that would take her all over the world. Along the way, there were some memorable and dramatic moments for her crew.
In April, 1972, she was on passage from Simonstown naval base in South Africa to Durban when she picked up news that the Liberian-registered tanker, the Silver Castle, was on fire after having been involved in a collision the previous day. With some members of the tanker crew reported missing, HMS Lowestoft diverted to the scene and found her lying four miles from the coast. The stricken vessel was still in flames, with oil leaking from a hole in her port side. HMS Lowestoft put a fire party on board the tanker to tackle the blaze and, with the Silver Castle drifting ashore, they faced a race against time to get a tow aboard and pull her out to sea.
In no little danger, the crew finally managed to secure a tow and began to draw her slowly away from the coast – only to run into thick fog that made the tanker invisible for two hours. But help was at hand, and a salvage tug arrived to relieve HMS Lowestoft, allowing her to resume her passage to Durban. Her intervention, and the bravery of her crew, had helped prevent the tanker running ashore and causing what could have been a major oil spill.
Three years later, in April 1975, HMS Lowestoft and her crew became involved in an international incident in the Far East at a pivotal time in the Vietnam War. She was en route from Hong Kong to Singapore when Saigon fell to the communist forces, leaving thousands of people, including hundreds of Britons, trying to flee the country. The crew decked every available area of the ship with Union Jacks, and the vessel was overflown a number of times by North Vietnamese MiG fighters as she moved along the coast, ready to pick up refugees.
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After four days of tactical manoeuvrings, on standby to go in and pick up British nationals, the frigate was down to four tons of fuel and had to head back to port. Although she never took any refugees on board, the incident was raised in Parliament.
Tony 'Sandy' Sanders, who was serving at the time, recalled: 'We saw some awful sights... There were bodies floating past the ship and we were all too aware of what was happening in Vietnam, but we were there for a specific purpose: to pick up any British nationals trying to flee the country. In the end, it proved to be very frustrating because it was too difficult for us to get into a position where we could take people aboard. But most people were later allowed to fly out of the country.'
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The following year, Sandy was still part of the crew when HMS Lowestoft was involved in the last of the so-called Cod Wars between Britain and Iceland.
Amid tension over fishing rights, she played an active role as a fishery protection vessel, seeking to safeguard British trawlers in the North Sea. At the time there were numerous skirmishes and collisions involving Icelandic vessels, including one in which the gunboat, Thor, rammed her.
Sandy said: 'The Thor approached us at quite a slow speed, but there was quite a judder when she struck us because she was quite a big gunboat and she was carrying concrete as ballast in her bow. We sustained a bit of damage too, as I recall, but we managed to shore it up and carry on.'
He added: 'It was quite a difficult time in some ways because we had to operate under such strict rules.
'We weren't allowed to fire off any warning shots, so all that we could do is position ourselves between the British trawlers and the Icelandic gunboats to prevent them cutting the trawlers' fishing nets. We were basically political pawns in the disagreement between the two governments.'
There were, of course, many less stressful voyages, including trips to Lowestoft, when the officers and crew attended civic events or paid visits to schools and other community organisations.
Some of those visits were recorded by The Journal, and a selection can be seen here thanks to the Lowestoft Record Office, which now holds part of our photographic archive. Do you recognise any of those pictured?
Sandy, now 56 and living in Peterborough, said he and his shipmates used to love their visits to the ship's namesake town. 'We were always made very welcome in the town. It was like a home from home, really,' he said.
Some of the crewmen took away more than memories of north Suffolk, too, as romance blossomed.
Sandy himself met his first wife Hazel during a visit to the town, and he still has connections with the area as his son, Steve Sanders, lives at Carlton Colville with his partner Kelly and their children.
'My old petty officer, GI Sandy Saunders, is another one who met a local girl,' he said. 'He's now in his 70s, and he and his wife Judith still live in the town; so, our trips to Lowestoft were life-changing for some! We used to get involved in all sorts of events while we were in the port, including visiting local schools and dressing up as pirates. On one occasion we went ashore for the Miss HMS Lowestoft competition and we couldn't get back to the ship so we were put up, thanks to the police, at the local drill hall.'
After being decommissioned in 1985, HMS Lowestoft was sunk on June 8, 1986 by a Tigerfish torpedo fired from HMS Conqueror – the same submarine that torpedoed the Argentinian cruiser the General Belgrano during the 1982 Falklands War. She was the last Royal Navy target to be sunk in this way still displaying the pennant number.
Despite her sad end, memories of the ship are kept alive by the HMS Lowestoft Association, which acts as a forum for old crewmates, producing a regular newsletter and running a free website. Sandy, who served on HMS Lowestoft between 1974 and 1977, said the association was all down to former crewman Bob Errington, from the ship's second commission. Bob wanted to set up a website so he could post some photos of the ship on the internet. In no time, old colleagues were emailing him, and within a year 30 shipmates were back in touch.
'There are now 123 of us,' said Sandy. 'It's great how the website has put people in touch, including some who haven't been in contact for 40 years. It's a wonderful chance to swap stories and old yarns. Although there were only 260 crew members on board at any time, there must have been about 3,000 people who served on HMS Lowestoft over her 25 years of service because there were new commissions every two-and-a-half years, until the 1970s.'
He added: 'Another ex-crewman, Richie Farman, is a local boy and is now head of the Lowestoft Town football supporters' association, as well as being an active member of the association.'
Sandy said that over the ship's quarter of a century serving the Royal Navy, many changes were made. However, most of those who served on board took away the same thing: special memories of their time on board. 'It was such a good craic. We had a wonderful time,' Sandy said. 'There was such a great spirit on board and it was such a friendly atmosphere to live and work in. It felt like being part of a big family.'
The HMS Lowestoft Association is organising its first reunion weekend for October 28-29. It is being held at Chatham, Kent, to mark the 50th anniversary of her commissioning at the dockyard. More details at www.sabie.co.uk/lowestoft/home.htm
• Do you have any memories of HMS Lowestoft – or do you recognise any of those pictured of these pages? If so, let us know here at Turning Back the Clock, 147, London Road North, Lowestoft NR32 1NB or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org including your name, address and contact number.